Why defeating the Taliban is key to stopping Al Qaeda
Only in Afghanistan and Pakistan have we seen jihadism actually take root in large numbers.
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To start with, the critics are undoubtedly correct in underscoring Afghanistan's near-irrelevance, and thus lack of influence, in the development of modern Muslim thought as well as the central importance of Arabs to Al Qaeda. I can't think of a single Afghan intellectual who has shaped either Sunni or Shiite militancy.
To be sure, the Arab world's dysfunctional efforts to come to grips with modernity created the pestilence that struck us on 9/11 and has slaughtered so many Muslims – especially in Iraq. And it's a decent bet that the slow evanescence of jihadism as a vibrant religious calling among Sunni Arabs – assuming it continues – will be the death knell for jihadists globally.
Unless Al Qaeda is able to reignite Sunni-Shiite strife in Iraq – and the odds of this happening seem pretty small – Sunni jihadism has lost the Iraq war, and with it, cross your fingers, the Arabs.
Mesopotamia really was the central front in the war on terror because it was the only military theater Al Qaeda and its allies had in the Arab world. Drive out the Americans, unleash a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath that just might bring Sunni Arab states and Iran into a bloody cold – ideally hot – war, and Sunni Islamic militancy might just shake the region.
Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, both decent strategists, knew what they were saying when they described Iraq as the decisive battleground. Victory there would have given their cause real possibilities in the Muslim heartlands.
The neo-Taliban in Afghanistan, like the Pakistani Taliban, are the children of Al Qaeda. Only in Afghanistan and Pakistan have we seen jihadism actually take root in large numbers. No place else in the Muslim world was laid waste like Afghanistan. The Taliban represent a remarkably redoubtable militant Islamist movement capable of grafting onto a vibrant ethnic identity (Pashtunism) and the diversity of culture and local loyalties that inevitably come with mountainous terrain.
Mullah Omar and many other Pashtuns embraced Mr. bin Laden because the Islamist soil in Afghanistan was so fertile: Savage Afghan communism in the 1970s, even more brutal Soviet occupation in the '80s, and civil war in the '90s left Afghanistan with no transcendent loyalties beyond faith.
In a functioning tribal society, with its conventions and family hierarchies, Mullah Omar, or the suicide-bomber-loving Jalaluddin Haqqani, or the equally vicious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, could not have arisen. They thrive in Afghanistan today because tribal society has been dying – especially for men of imagination, ambition, and militant conviction. And there is no border when it comes to radical Islamic Pashtunism: Militancy on one side of the Durand Line feeds militancy on the other.